One of the best things about being an author is the opportunities I get to meet other creative people. During the last year or so, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know the multi-talented Willsin Rowe. I first encountered him through Excessica, where he’s artistic director. He designed the covers for my D&S Duos series, in return for my editing his delightful F/F story Her Majesty. Then, when there was a vacancy at the Oh Get a Grip blog, he stepped into the gap. I’ve gotten to know him a lot better through his posts there. Most recently, he designed the amazing cover for The Gazillionaire and the Virgin.
Anyway, I found myself wondering what makes Willsin tick, from an artistic perspective. So I thought I’d ask. He was kind enough to agree to this interview.
Your creativity takes a wide range of forms: writing and playing music, visual art and fiction. Which came first? Which comes easiest or most naturally for you? If you had to choose one creative outlet that “defines” who you are, would it be Willsin Rowe, musician; Willsin Rowe, artist; or Willsin Rowe, author? Or something else?
Gosh, that’s a toughie. I view myself as an author who makes cover art and plays music, yet it’s the cover art for which I’m best known. I remember in childhood that drawing came first (I won a prize at the age of 5), but by the age of 8 I was already doing various forms of silly writing. Usually my sister and I would put speech captions on the characters in the books we read, but that grew rapidly into writing actual stories.
I do recall identifying the desire to write professionally at the age of 10, and I do believe writing is the art which comes most naturally to me.
A few years later, the desire to play and write music took over, though, and I pursued that for a couple of decades, only truly coming back to writing about ten years ago. Plenty of day jobs in the meantime, and plenty of casual writing for friends in that time (customized poems, for example… usually bawdy).
In recent years I also added “book trailer maker” and “music video maker” to my skill sets. I no longer make book trailers commercially, as the way I worked was too time-intensive. I wrote the scripts based on information from the author, I wrote and arranged all the music, I sourced most or all of the imagery and very often created frame-by-frame animation through Photoshop. As I was dealing with indie and self-published authors, I simply couldn’t charge what the work was worth, so I wrapped that side of the business up. (Anyone who’s interested can check out my trailers here… remembering, please, that the newest of them is still close to four years old). And my music videos, all for my own band, can be viewed here.
Do you find that there’s cross-pollination between your different expressive modalities, or are they fairly independent?
Oh, absolutely there is. At only a superficial level there are obvious marriages. Words meet graphic arts when I make covers for my own books. Graphic arts meets music when I’ve made CD covers and posters for bands I’m in (or other people’s bands). And of course, words meet music all the time, even if it’s just my terrible and puerile word-switch improvisations while driving my sons on the school run.
Looking deeper than that, though, the most obvious crossover I’ve noticed is that twenty years of song-writing helped me shape my story-writing. The direct link was when I focused on flash fiction in the early years of professional writing. I adore the challenge of taking a huge concept and distilling it to only a few words. I’ve always been good with puns and cryptic crosswords, and both of those lateral-thinking methods help with flash fiction, allowing an author to use words with several meanings in place of a more simplified one. I find that opens the scope of a story’s heart greatly, and that was a skill I honed through music. I daresay that knack for brevity has also informed my longer works (though arguably not my interview answers!)
I’ve been the lucky beneficiary of your fantastic cover art design talent. How did you get started doing covers? Did you teach yourself the nuts and bolts of using graphic design tools, or do you have formal training? What is your process for creating a new cover?
Why, thank ya for the props, ma’am! I had actually discovered a talent for certain kinds of drawing (mostly photographic reproduction style) while in high school. At that point, I hadn’t begun to teach myself music, so art seemed a good overarching field to chase work in. Out of high school, my first job was as a compositor (page layout artist), where I learned the basics of older style printing, such as hot metal work and stereotyping. That was where I first began fiddling with Mac computers, and a few years later I managed to score a job as a desktop publisher.
I’ve never had any formal training in graphic design, but I picked up a lot of information along the way, and I believe I have a natural eye for balance and typography. None of that truly prepared me for the field of book cover art, though. That began when I was first published through Excessica and was given the opportunity to make my own cover art. When the publisher put a call out for any authors who might be able to make covers, I volunteered. After the first half-dozen covers it seemed I had a little flair for the field and I’ve never stopped making them since.
As far as process goes, there’s no one answer. For new authors I tend to use a cover request form, but for folks I’ve already worked with we can often go straight to shorthand, especially when it’s an established series like the Paranormal Dating Agency (by Milly Taiden).
On the technical and production side of things, again there’s not really a single answer. Genre and sub-genre can help set the pace, but there are some elements which are common across nearly all covers (and indeed, photography and other design), such as the rule of thirds. Knowing one’s way around Photoshop (or any of the other workable applications) is essential, though there is an absolute truckload of tricks in there I’ve never encountered. Mostly that’s because I started using Photoshop almost the second it was released in the very early 90s, so had to work around all the stuff it couldn’t do! The techniques I developed for myself have probably been somehow included in updates, but I’ve never gone looking.
I have actually described the nuts-and-bolts process of cover design in the past, with my friend and co-author Katie Salidas. You can find that info here, if you’re interested! – http://www.katiesalidas.com/2012/04/deconstructing-art-of-cover.html
I know about “writer’s block” from personal experience. Is there such a thing as “artist’s block” or “musician’s block”? If so, how do you handle this when it happens?
Artist’s block doesn’t usually take the same form as writer’s block, in my experience, though other folks’ mileage may vary. I hasten to add I rarely seem to encounter writer’s block, but in part that’s because I have other fields I work in (which harks back to the earlier question about cross-pollination). If I happen to be stuck for words I probably won’t even notice because I will have jumped across to work on a cover. But that aside…
The main stumbling blocks I’ve encountered with cover art tend to be two-fold: either I can’t find a stock image to suit, or I get so close to the project I can’t truly see it.
With the first issue, it can be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes you can find the perfect pose, but the model is wrong (hair colour, skin colour, height, weight or just overall look). Sometimes it’s the opposite. Hardest of all images to find, though, is a genuine curvy/BBW model posing romantically with a man (or just posing in any fashion which is not either comical or insulting). With the wonderful growth in BBW/Curvy fiction out there, I would have hoped more photographers and models would have jumped on board, but so far it’s still incredibly slim pickings. I (and many other authors) get asked quite often why the women on our BBW books are slender. My friend Erika Masten had the perfect response, though (not sure I’ll get this verbatim): “Please stop asking the authors, and start asking the photographers”.
With the second issue (being too close to the project)… well, that’s a commonality throughout all creative fields, I believe. I’m using it as a metaphor but it also feels literal. Sometimes a cover refuses to coalesce because it’s as if I’m standing right up against it, and no matter how much I bend my neck, I just can’t see the rest of it. Most people who write, paint, draw, design clothing, or do any other creative world have almost certainly endured that same feeling. The only answer then, of course, is to walk away from it for a short while. Again, either metaphorically or physically (or both).
Musically… well, music has become a much smaller part of my life these days. I don’t recall a time of having musician’s block, onlyhaving writer’s block at times while writing lyrics!
My own writing is very much separate from my everyday life. Indeed, Lisabet Sarai is practically a different person from my real world persona. What about you? Do the people around you know about and approve of your writing? Actually, given that you do covers for erotic fiction, I might ask the same about your art. Do you show your stuff to your family and friends?
All of Willsin is me, but only some of me is Willsin. There’s not a thing I say or write or post publicly which the real me wouldn’t do, say or post. There is, however, plenty the real me says, does and would post which Willsin wouldn’t, if that makes sense. Willsin is a distillation of the real me. He’s human flash fiction! Yet I’ve been him since 2006, so I’m comfortable inhabiting his skin when the need arises.
Not too many people in my real life know what I do (my parents and sister know but it’s not really a part of their lives in any way). Some know I make book covers, though I doubt they realise how many of them are dirty smut books. Fewer still know I write, fewer again know WHAT I write.
But I’m a diverse bloke, and I also write under the pen name Abi Aiken, a fact which I only revealed recently. And I write some non-erotic material under yet another name – a name which is much more widely know by real-world folks. So some folks know some stuff, and very few know all the stuff!
It’s not that I’m too worried about people knowing I write erotic romance… it’s more the potential ramifications on my wife (she’s a primary school teacher) and even my kids (youngest is 12, and if his mates knew, I’m sure he’d cop some teasing).
What’s your dream, from an artistic or creative perspective? If you could devote as much time as you wanted to making music, art or stories, what would you do?
If I had to choose only one field, then I would choose writing, simply because (at least for the first few drafts), it’s mine alone. Every word is there because I wanted it so. The buzz which comes from composing a sentence which truly works is a thing of beauty. That’s the thrill which keeps a person writing, I think. I’m a pretty ordinary singer, but there are times, few and far between, when I’ll hit a note and hold it and it just soars. It’s like the golfer who duffs 98% of his shots. It’s that 2% which connect sweetly that keeps him or her playing. I find the same thing with writing, but when it’s my baby (final draft before editing), the ratio is inverse. 98% sweet shots, 2% duffed. It might suck to every other person on the planet, but at that point, it’s as close to me as is possible.
Thanks so much for taking the time to satisfy my curiosity, Willsin! If you want to learn more about Willsin, check out his blog and/or his posts at the Grip. And don’t miss his recent stunning release, The Last Ten Days, which I reviewed here in January.